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Remembering Kalanidhi Maami

Padmabhushan Smt. Kalanidhi Narayanan was one of the world's top exponents of abhinaya, the art of expression. She passed away on Sunday February 21, 2016. I was lucky to have learned from her; these are my memories from those interactions.

My first impression of Maami was that she was very stern. I was 7 years old, and my mom had brought her to our home in Cupertino, California to spend a few weeks with us and teach Abhinaya. I was intimidated by her presence and didn’t know what to expect in my first class. We were all squirmy kids, unsure of what was going to happen. Appropriately, she taught us the item “Enna naan seithuvittaen” (What did I do?) where Krishna protests his innocence to the gopi who has just accused him of stealing butter. Imagine our surprise when this stern-looking Maami transformed into a sneaky little boy in front of our eyes; I distincty remember the line “Edduku nee muraikiraai” (Why are you glaring at me?) since her large eyes expressed that especially well. We all giggled at her interpretation of this same line where Krishna says “If you glare at me so much, your eyes will fall out of your head.”

Our next meeting was almost two years later. We learned another Krishna item, this time adding in the character of Yashoda. “Vaada vaada kanna” and “Enne seiyven amma” where Krishna wiles his way saying “How is it possible that I stole any butter, I’m such a small and well behaved child”. Again, we enjoyed the transformation Maami underwent to portray these characters and the playfulness that emerged from her stern countenance.

During these visits, I remember being very intimidated, wanting to please but not knowing how. I was a shy kid, and I don’t remember much interaction with Maami outside of class. I was probably too scared to approach her otherwise.

During her next visit, my dance friends and I had grown into pre-teens, insecure and self conscious. Her choice of item “Mutta Vadhura” was therefore an especially interesting one. We had such a hard time getting into the character of the khandita nayika, expressing deep sarcasm and anger towards her lover. How were 12 and 13 year olds supposed to do this? It was amusing for sure. Things came to a head when we reached the charanam line “Aasavati paitta teesi juchuchu” (“You removed that women’s upper sari garment and saw everything”). Imagine our shock as such explicit actions in a padam! For young kids growing up in America, we were still quite conservative. I remember feeling extremely awkward indicating the shape of breasts as Maami had done. Some of my fellow student’s parents were not amused by the content of this padam and complained, asking to change the item. I remember Maami, half amused and half frustrated, wondering at this response in light of the kinds of immodesty shown on American TV (paraphrasing her reaction here). We were rushed through the item and began “Enne ramum”, on the completely opposite end of the spectrum.

Maami didn’t visit again until 2000, when I had just graduated from high school. She spent the whole summer with us. Looking back now, I can’t believe my good fortune to have spent several weeks with her and to receive such one on one attention (have to thank my mom for bringing Maami for such a long visit). I learnt some of my absolute favorite items then, including “Jagadodharana”, “Eppadi manam tunindado”, “Chaliye Kunjanamo”. At age 16, I was finally old enough to see past her stern exterior and recognize the genuine interest she had in my learning. I was also old enough to produce something that was apparently worthy of her praise; those words of praise were so precious. I remember performing Jagadodharana on stage at the end of that summer and waiting anxiously to hear what she thought. When she said simply “you did a good job”, I was over the moon. Of course, the next day, I had an inflated ego and my performance of “Eppadi manam” didn’t go over so well with her (“you should have shown more sadness”). I remember her exact words, both praise and criticism, and they stay with me each time I perform these items.

With such an illustrious teacher, I knew not to expect praise generally so I was floored when she told my parents that they should send me to India to learn with her. I took it as the highest compliment and cherished it, making a promise to myself to make it happen. It was precisely because of her expressing interest in me that I took time off after graduating from college to go to India and spend time learning from her and Chandru Sir.

Her stern exterior belied her loving and generous nature. From very early on, she used to repeatedly tell my dad that he had to find me a husband that would allow to me continue dance. At the time, I thought it rather obvious for my family to do so, but only later did I realize what this truly meant to her.

My time in India was tough for me since I was in unfamiliar surroundings, unknown to the larger dance community, trying to learn what I could and immerse myself in dance. Within the first month of my stay there, a close contact had arranged for me to perform at the Karpagam Vinayaka Temple. I was extremely nervous and not interested in anyone actually watching me dance; I meant to just use it as a chance to practice. When I mentioned the performance to Maami, she immediately asked me for details. I replied vaguely, mentioning that it was some Vinayaka Temple in the area. The day after the performance, when I went in for class, I received a strong scolding from her. Apparently, she had driven that night to 5 or 6 different Vinayaka Temples looking for my performance and gave up after searching for an hour or so.

Those few months in India were eye opening for me. Not only did I reestablish my love for dance and understand how much more I had to learn, I also discovered the racket of organizing performances, especially as an NRI. I remember a trusted family friend offering to help organize a performance for a fee that was pre arranged with my father. When the time came for me to pay this fee, they coolly insisted that the fee was supposed to be greater. I felt very adrift in this world, feeling very much like an outsider and an obvious target for this casual exploitation. Maami was one of the few who made me feel like I belonged. She treated me like her own, greeting me warmly at all performances and introducing me to others. On top of this, she presented me as a soloist in her own festival, even paying me a generous honorarium. I remember being so overcome with gratitude at having this opportunity that I kept thanking her after the show was over (True to character, she got annoyed with my effusive response and told me to stop).

Her pride in her students was crystal clear. I remember her sitting front and center at all of her students’ performances. Once, when I watched Sangita Iswaran perform Jagadodharana, I remarked to Maami afterwards how much I enjoyed it. She nodded, clearly proud, and also added “This is what you need to work towards”. Fair and honest, as always.

I now see and remember how much love she displayed towards me and my family over the years. Whenever we were in India, she insisted that we come over for a meal, not just tea/coffee, a proper meal in her house. I was so happy she was able to meet Mukul at our engagement reception in Chennai; she would be happy to know how supportive he is of all of my endeavors.

Photo caption: Photo of Kalanidhi Mami with my parents and Parimala Maami (another generous soul who is no longer with us) at our Chennai reception; sadly, I missed the opportunity to take a photo with Maami at this event

The last time I saw Maami was in 2013. She rarely went out for performances, having confined herself to her home. Maybe it was just that day, but I sensed great anger and frustration at her own failing health and abilities. My heart ached to see her so bitter at her inability to do the things she loved to do, teach and watch her students’ performances.

Thinking back about how generous she was to me over my whole life, it seems impossible that she was equally generous to all of her students. And yet, she was, and this makes her truly remarkable. To me, the lessons learnt from her example are equally important as all of the lessons I learned in her Abhinaya classes.

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